FORT MYERS, FLA. – The Twins had won the American League Central for the sixth time in nine years as they entered the 2011 season. They also had lost to the Yankees in a division series sweep for the second straight October in 2010, and had lost to the Yankees four times total in the first round.
There was only one question from Twins fans for a veteran Minneapolis sportswriter as he waddled about Hammond Stadium for a couple of weeks in spring training:
“Hey, Roos-ee, do you think we can beat the Yankees this year?’’
Roos-ee was somewhat skeptical of the pitching staff and starting infield being put together by the Twins that spring and would respond with something such as:
“I think the Twins would be very fortunate to be in a position to be swept by the Yankees after this season.’’
This is not to suggest that Roos-ee had the clairvoyance in March to foresee the wave of injuries and ineptitude that would lead to a 63-99 record and the start of a four-season calamity.
What is interesting is the return to the right side of .500 at 83-79 in 2015, and clear improvements have not caused an outbreak of optimism — not from fans encountered in the now wide walking areas of Hammond Stadium, and certainly not in the harsh world of social media and online commenters.
I have to say, after being here all month, here’s the question:
What’s not to like?
The major difficulty facing the Twins as they open the season on Monday in Baltimore is not the flaws on their 25-man roster. Rather, it is the strength of the Central Division, where the Twins will be playing 47 percent of the schedule (76 of 162).
The Twins could finish from second to fifth (nobody’s beating Kansas City) in the salty Central, depending on whether they are one of the teams that is struck with injuries or one that avoids them.
Barring a misfortune during the two exhibitions in Washington, the Twins will open the season without a player on an unavailable list — meaning disabled, suspended or even paternity (Brian Duensing in 2014).
This can be taken either as a good sign, or with a sense of foreboding, since the last time the Twins opened the season with a “clean’’ roster was 2011 … and by mid-April, the injury carnage had started.
One year earlier, the Twins went 94-68 and won the division by six games. That’s not happening, not with this level of divisional competition, but compare the rotation that started 2010 with what is set to start this season:
Then — Carl Pavano, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey and Francisco Liriano (coming off 5-13). Now — Erv Santana, Kyle Gibson, Phil Hughes, Tommy Milone and Ricky Nolasco.
Pavano pitched great, and Liriano had a comeback season, but I’ll take this bunch all day long.
BUT, you’re screaming, “Nolasco is in the rotation!’’
Paying more attention to the fifth starter than what the Twins appear to have at the top — Big Erv dealing, Hughes in better shape and throwing well, and Gibson with his best-yet off-speed pitches — is the way of the world in 2016, and also ridiculous.
Nolasco has had a terrific curveball this spring. If he carries it into the season, he’ll be an asset as the fifth starter. If he doesn’t and gets knocked around, Tyler Duffey or Jose Berrios — whoever is pitching better in Class AAA — will be in Minnesota soon enough.
There also was much angst this winter over the failure to add to the bullpen. Based on a rebound by Glen Perkins from last season’s failed final 10 weeks, you can make a favorable bullpen comparison to the group that opened 2010:
Then — Jon Rauch, Pat Neshek, Jose Mijares, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Duensing and Alex Burnett. Now — Perkins, Kevin Jepsen, Trevor May, Ryan Pressly, Casey Fien, Fernando Abad and Michael Tonkin.
It’s close enough to 2010 for government work and winning baseball.
As for the lineup, the contention here is it’s the best the Twins have had to offer since Justin Morneau was kneed in the head by Toronto’s John McDonald as Morneau slid into second base on July 7, 2010.
Yeah, there was a modest bonfire offered with Monday’s column about Miguel Sano having gained rather than lost weight during this offseason, and the masses are worked up about him being assigned to right field.
Long-term, he is going to have to get in shape. For now, the Twins will rely on good fortune to get him to the plate 600 times. If that happens, with a solid rotation, a lineup with power, an excellent infield, a young and gifted outfield, and with an excellent bench …
What’s not to like?